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Pull! Pull! Pull! South Coast Whaleboating

Azorean whaleboatsIt’s just before dawn at Clark’s Cove and a group of women of all ages are beginning to gather. It’s going to be a beautifully clear July day once the sun rises so we are all dressed simply in t-shirts and sneakers. But for the fingerless gloves (to protect our hands from monster oars), we look like we’re on our way to a gym class. Lisa and Lara begin prepping one of the long colorful boats. Its inside is painted a cheerful bubblegum pink, reflecting the mood, at least for me.

“We’re down one girl,” Lisa Lemieux, the boat steerer says.

Lara Harrington hands me a 50-pound oar that looks to be over 15 feet long, “Looks like you’re rowing.” And just like that I’m introduced firsthand to the sport of whaleboat rowing.

Other cities have rivers with crew teams sculling on fiberglass shells. The South Coast has colorful wooden whaleboats, nearly 40 feet long and elegantly tapered at the ends, that troll the harbors around New Bedford and Fairhaven with thrilling vistas of the Hurricane Dike, the working waterfront, and a skyline marked with gothic towers, old mills and church spires. These vessels were used continuously in the whaling industry in the 1800s.

Azorean whaleboatsToday, the boats are filled with men and women enjoying them recreationally. Some have been rowing (or sailing) for years — or some, like me, may have just joined the fun.

New Bedford is home to three of only 63 authentic Azorean whaleboats in the world (and the only ones in
the United States). Handcrafted by a master wooden boat builder, they are so beautiful that you might
expect them to be museum pieces. One of them — the Bela Vista — is in fact co-owned by the New Bedford Whaling Museum. But it’s a living, breathing exhibit: simply look out at the harbor to see them in use by passionate teams of rowers or sailors. Then, take a moment to imagine them as the vehicles created to capture 60-foot sperm whales, operated entirely by manpower.

In the Azores, the hunt for sperm whales began when the vigia (the lookout) alerted the town that he had spotted a whale. The whalers would quickly run to their boats to give chase to the giant creatures, some of which could reach lengths of 70 feet. Seven brave and strong souls made up a boat: one steered, five rowed and one was ready with the harpoon. It’s hard to fathom that this is how it was done just 50 years ago.

“…usually in the clear light approaching sunrise, a rocket is fired and within a few minutes, amidst shouts of ‘Baleia, baleia!’, the whalemen are running down to the boat slip or manhandling the boats from their sheds.”— Robert C. Clark, Open Boat Whaling in the Azores

Azorean whaleboatsHow New Bedford acquired three Azorean whaleboats is the story of a strong local woman who cherished her Portuguese heritage. Dr. Mary Vermette wanted to recognize the many Azorean whalers who had emigrated to this region. She was instrumental in bringing the Bela Vista to New Bedford in September 1997. She founded the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society (AMHS) later that year. In a 1999 Standard-Times interview, she said, “the whaleboats are a bridge between here and the Azores; something physical of our past that we can see, that shows the presence of the Azorean people here.”

Two more boats were built in New Bedford soon after, using traditional techniques by the same master boat builder who had built the Bela Vista in the Azores. Now, 157 South Coast residents are members of the AMHS, more than a third of them are active rowers/sailors. More than two hundred others make up the other local whaleboat rowing clubs (the Buzzards Bay Rowing Club and Whaling City Rowing). Just look out at the harbors to begin to realize the legacy created by Dr. Vermette, who passed away in 2003.

Curious newcomers are encouraged to attend an open row (unlike the other clubs, the AMHS also offers open sails). If they’re like Lara Harrington, the boats become a passionate part of their lives. Lara came to it as a curious South End neighbor, who was fascinated watching the AMHS boats in Clark’s Cove. When her friends’ parents asked if she wanted to give it a try and form a team with some younger women, “I jumped at the chance,” she says. “We collected a group of our friends and rowed together for two years.” She is poetic when she talks about whaleboat rowing, “It’s a conversation with the water, with the boat, the oars, the people and the wind. It’s not something you learn, it’s something you grasp. It’s building a relationship with all of these elements.”

Newbies are welcomed aboard and generously taught the ropes. It’s not what you think, not the kind of rowing you’re used to from your traditional dinghy. The steersman calls out, “Ready all!” You get into the starting position: reach forward, arms out straight. “Pull together!” Lean disarmingly far back, then pull the oar straight back to your chest. Don’t dip the oar too far into the water. Keep the same beat as the others. When you’re new to this, you’re quietly focused even as conversation ricochets around you, because you’re trying to keep to the boat’s rhythm. It feels good to be part of something with a strong rhythm.

Azorean WhaleboatsIt feels good until you find yourself sitting on the bottom of the boat — it’s called crabbing and it happens when the oar gets stuck in the water and the force you’ve been putting into rowing transfers its energy into pushing you back, sometime right into the bottom of the boat. The others in the boat have all done the same, so no need to feel embarrassed. It’s just the oars and the water hazing you.

Over in Fairhaven on Friday afternoons (also Sunday and Wednesday mornings), the Crabalots are pushing off for their weekly row. The average age in their boat is over 70. Vi Taylor says “the kid in the boat” is 63. But they’re in far better shape than most 30-year-olds I know. When I ask them how intense the rowing is, the answer, like so many things, is that it depends on the day. Some days they train hard. Some days are more leisurely. Someone says, “This ride? In terms of calories? 2 glasses of wine.”

Azorean WhaleboatsThere’s an easy camaraderie that envelops the boat as it pushes away from the dock and hits the open water. The women chat companionably while rowing and then, under the direction of the boat steerer, they buckle down and burn a trail through the water. It’s like a friendly social hour peppered with bouts of focused exertion where the only voice is the steerer: Pull! Pull! Pull!

Traditional crew is known for its toughness, its ability to handle pain. These are the guys that David Halberstam chronicled in The Amateurs — purists who welcome pain and suffering for the love of the sport. Frankly, they’ve got nothing on whaleboat enthusiasts. While the AMHS stores its boats from November to May to preserve them from the elements, the Buzzards Bay Rowing Club and Whaling City Row offer year-round rowing. Gerry Roche leads the Engine Room team, a group of men in their 40s and 50s who row every Sunday morning at 8 am all year long. Roche says he likes winter rows even more than summer rows: “it’s quieter, there’s no boat traffic, the water is smooth and you warm up pretty quickly.” When Gerry’s team returns to the dock at the end of their row, they fill the next team in on the day’s idiosyncrasies: the wind, the currents, any sea life they may have encountered.

Azorean WhaleboatsYear-round rowing means having a front row seat to some amazing late afternoon sunsets, early moonrises and to a special hardy camaraderie. The Whaling City Rowing Club (WCRC) boasts a team who has been rowing together for nearly 20 years. For the last 15 years, the Gray Buzzards have made a monthly long trek out to Butler Flats Lighthouse — six miles back and forth — in all sorts of weather. WCRC President Mark Hurley says, “two or three years ago, the harbors were getting close to freezing. The Gray Buzzards brought axes with them so they could break through the ice if they had to. Two days later, the harbor froze over for two weeks.”

Azorean WhaleboatsFor many, whaleboat rowing is an opportunity to get outside and enjoy others’ company, to get some exercise and celebrate the outdoors while nurturing an activity deeply rooted in culture and history. For others, it’s a competitive international sport. These locals enter the International Azorean Whaleboat Regatta as the USA team on the world stage every other year, where they are very competitive. In 2017, they took second in rowing and sailing, in both the men’s and women’s divisions. This July [2019], they’ll travel to the Azores for the competition (the Regatta alternates locations between the Azores and New Bedford).

Azorean WhaleboatsAt the end of our row, the AMHS team skillfully approaches the dock, careful not to scrape against the side. They store the boats, the ropes, the oars and oarlocks, their focused attention in these chores revealing their reverence for the colorful wooden boats. When everything is finished, the women chat about an upcoming weekend social. Someone asks Dartmouth’s Lucy Amaral if she’s bringing her famous bacalhau to the social. Someone else asks if anyone wants to grab breakfast.

It’s not yet 7 am and they’ve just been part of something that feels a little magical. “It’s a team of people that understand each other,” says Lara Harrington. “You can feel the boat when your stroke is on point with everyone else’s.”

What a way to start the day.

Photos by John Robson

A version of this article appeared in our early summer 2019 print issue. Want to support stories likes this and see more of John Robson’s photographs in all their glory? Subscribe to the magazine and we’ll arrive quarterly in your mailbox with stories and photographs reflecting back the beauty and character of the South Coast! Subscribe right here for $19.99 a year.


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8 Great Things for September on the South Coast


September is for festivals and parties! The South Coast has festivals galore to celebrate this magical month. Get out and enjoy them with our top picks —  8 Great Things for September!

1. Beer and Oyster Fest

We can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Sippican Lands Trust’s great work over the last 45 years (!!) than with local oysters and craft beers, can you? With oysters from Cuttyhunk Oysters, Edgewater Oysters, and Island Creek Oysters as well as food from OxCart and music, games, and all sorts of fun activities, the SLT Beer and Oyster Fest seems like the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. September 7th, 2  to 6 pm. Silvershell Beach, Marion. Tickets are $50 for adults, $25 for children. Purchase tickets online here. 

2. Our Walking Book Club Returns!

8 Great Things for SeptemberOur Walking Book Club is back with Ruthless River, by Holly FitzGerald, a hard-to-put-down adventure story recounting FitzGerald’s honeymoon when she and her husband were lost for weeks in the Amazon jungle.  Our Walking Book Club takes place along the banks of Wareham’s Weweantic River (a worthy substitute, we think, for Peru’s Madre de Dios). The walk is meant to be enjoyable even for people who haven’t yet finished (or started!) the book, so don’t worry about any spoilers! Free. September 8th, 2 to 4 pm. Horseshoe Mill, Station Street, Wareham (parking area at very end of road). See more here. With great thanks to our sponsors: Partners Village Store, Friends of the Wareham Library and the Wareham Library Foundation.

8 Great Things for September3. New Bedford Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival

It’s time to feast your heart out! 25+ food trucks, with everything from mac and cheese to waffles to fried clams. Seriously, could anything be better?? September 14, 12 to 5 pm. Fort Taber, South Rodney French Blvd, New Bedford. See more here. 

 8 Great Things for 4. Winner, Winner, Barbecue Dinner!

If you’ve had a chance to pick up our latest issue, you know that it’s filled with our readers’ favorite spots on the South Coast! From best lobster roll to best marina, our late summer issue celebrates all of the great things the South Coast has to offer. But we figured an issue wasn’t enough (that, and we love a good party!). To continue the celebration of the best of the South Coast, this September we’re throwing a big ol’ party featuring yummy barbecue from Keane’s, amazing desserts from  Artisan Bake Shop, live music, and lots of fun! Come celebrate with us (and this year’s winners)! September 19th, 6 to 9 pm at The Barn on Benson’s Pond, South Middleboro. Tickets $50 ($45 for subscribers), email [email protected] to reserve your ticket now.

5. Garlic and Art Festival

8 Great Things for SeptemberGarlic AND art! What a combination! What a celebration! Round the Bend Farm is hosting a very special Open Farm Day to celebrate the artists’ harvest. Join them for a day filled with beautiful farm inspired pieces from select local artists and a “diverse selection of local garlic” (who knew garlic could be diverse?!). On top of the art show, the day will feature burgers (of both vegan and meat variety) with garlic condiments, wood-fired pizza, and local drinks. September 21st, 10 to 5 (followed by Artist’s Reception, 5 to 7). Round the Bend Farm, 92 Allen’s Neck Rd, South Dartmouth. More here. 

6. Wet Paint Padanaram

8 Great ThingsOk, so from what we can tell, this seems to be a bit of a paint party a la Iron Chef America and we are LOVING it. Iron Artist Padanaram, maybe? Local artists will gather in Padanaram and then disperse to various public access points to paint views of Padanaram Village and Harbor throughout the day. While they paint, attendees will get an inside look at their process. In the evening, all artists will bring their work to South Wharf Yacht Yard and Marina, where they’ll be judged and prizes will be awarded. Afterwards, all the paintings will be offered for sale with proceeds going to the artists. While the silent auction is underway, guests and artists alike will mingle and enjoy light refreshments, music, and the breathtaking views of the harbor at sunset. September 21st, painting begins at 10, party begins at 4. South Wharf Yacht Yard & Marina, Padanaram. Tickets from $35. See more here. 

7. Fabric Arts Festival

This new celebration of art, music, film, and community promises to engage Fall River, the city, its people, and their stories to create a unique festival. With dozens of local AND international artists, musicians, and filmmakers already signed on, the weekend is an exciting new way to experience and celebrate local creators and Fall River itself. And Kelsey Lu (who has worked with Lady Gaga, Florence + the Machine, Solange, etc) will be headlining! September 25 to 28. Various venues in downtown Fall River, see facebook page here for details.

8. Harvest Fun!

Fairhaven Tourism Office brings us all the fall fun, featuring tractor rides, face painting, good food, and local vendors. September 21, 10 to 4. Fairhaven Visitors Center, 141 Main St, Fairhaven. See more here. 

Wanna keep up with the coolest happenings each month on the South Coast?! Sign up for our free monthly newsletter right here!

Cover photo by James Mahaney, Fairhaven

Our August Best of the South Coast is out and you’ll find it on newsstands now.  It’s popping with great content (100s of our readers’ local favorites, some rockin’ local athletes, woodworkers and lots more). If you want a copy delivered to your door with things you won’t see online, subscribe right here! Or just help us spread the word about South Coast Almanac by sharing this post with your friends on facebook, twitter or by email.

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Dairy Farming on the South Coast

Got Milk? Dairy Farming on the South Coast

Demand is dwindling. More people everyday turn to alternatives from soy, almonds and coconuts. Costs to produce traditional milk are soaring, while the prices of the product leave little room for making a profit. The business of milk just isn’t what it used to be. The challenging economics of maintaining dairy farms has led to the closure of dozens in the past few decades.

But a few farms that dot the landscape of the South Coast have persevered. Their secret to survival: going beyond pasteurized milk and venturing into products that both bring a better return on investment and broaden the flavors that characterize our local food stock.

For Andrew Ferry, who operates Pine Hill Dairy in Westport, and Bill Couto of Paskamansett Farms in Dartmouth, the answer is selling raw milk. This milk is creamier and healthier, and doesn’t lose the good bacteria that is stripped from milk during pasteurization, they say.

Other farms have achieved success by selling their milk to local cheese makers like Shy Brothers Farm in Westport and Great Hill Farm in Marion. Many of these local cheeses are sold nationwide and have garnered national and international awards for their quality and flavor.

‘The cows are number one’

Andrew Ferry Pine Hill DairyAndrew Ferry is no stranger to life on a dairy farm. He is the fourth generation of dairy farmers (his grandparents are from Portugal) and grew up on his father’s farm on Gifford Road in Westport.

His grandfather, who came to Westport, had 11 children, and Ferry’s father is the youngest. (“He has never had to hire a single guy,” Ferry quips.) Two years ago, a fire burned his grandfather’s 80-year old barn to the ground. He was devastated. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get over it. It’s strange when home doesn’t really look the same,” he says.

As he works to overcome this loss, he is busy keeping his dairy operation at Pine Hill Road viable, and the family tradition alive. Ferry, along with his wife Shauna, works seven days a week, taking care of their 50 cows (a mixed herd of Jersey and Brown Swiss) that he milks twice per day, every day.

Ferry is clearly fond of the animals, and says they do not push them for production. They roam the 30 open acres and enjoy a diet of grass, alfalfa and mineral packs. “The cows are number one. If you don’t have happy, comfortable and healthy cows, you’re not going to end up with good milk,” he says. “The number one thing is cow comfort.”

When he started running the operation, he received about $26 per 100 pounds of milk, which was sold to Garelicks Farms in Franklin, where it was pasteurized and then distributed in supermarket chains. The price has dipped, and at one point was $16 per 100 pounds.

Ferry, who produces 5,000 pounds of milk every other day, continues to sell to Garelick, but began producing raw milk to get a better price for the milk, which he feels pride in producing.

“It’s kind of a shame to send everything to Garelick Farms, where they mix it with everybody else’s milk,” he says “That is why we went in that direction [of selling raw milk]. We process our own milk so that people in the community can actually enjoy the products right from the cow.”

Growing demand

Dairy farming on South CoastUnder state regulations, customers must purchase raw milk directly from the farm that produces it. At Pine Hill Farm, in a small room only a few feet away from the cows, raw milk in a freezer is on sale. A nearby wall lists the prices and a small wooden box to deposit money is on a nearby counter; it’s all on the honor system.

“It seems to always be growing,” Ferry says, regarding demand for raw milk. Customers come from all over: locally in Westport and throughout the state. In Rhode Island, raw milk is illegal to sell, so many come to Massachusetts to purchase raw milk from him. He fondly notes one customer, a father of 14 children from Coventry, R.I., who comes every week for 15 gallons.

Looking forward, Ferry is working to find other ways to innovate in his business. He currently is building a processing room where he will be able to pasteurize his milk in-house.

“Then I can offer other products like yogurt or flavored milk. I’m looking to make Skyr, a type of yogurt [technically a cheese] from Iceland that is a little bit thicker than Greek yogurt. It’s a really trendy product,” he says.

‘Collecting cows’

Bill Coutu, who grew up in Dartmouth, recalls a time when there were 200 dairy farms in Dartmouth alone. “We had cows in our backyard,” he says. Now there are only 140 dairy farms in the entire state of Massachusetts.

Couto, who owns Paskamansett Farms, a 27-acre farm on Tucker Road in Dartmouth, began specializing in raw milk many years ago to keep his farm from closing.

Coutu purchased the land in 1991 when it went up for auction, and his family originally focused on growing vegetables and running a nursery. His young son, Tom, then 9 years old, started “collecting cows,” he says. Over time, the herd grew to 40 cows, and after undergoing a state licensing process, the farm began selling raw milk.

Now, “we are one of the largest dairy farms that sells only raw milk,” he says, although they do sell their own fresh meat as well. His son, Tom, milks the cows and keeps the operation going–whether through blizzards or power outages. (The family invested in three back-up generators after a devastating blizzard a couple of years ago.)

“It is difficult in the dairy business. It’s seven days a week. It doesn’t matter if you have the flu,” Coutu says. However, his family is committed to the farm. Interest continues to build for his product, and he likes not being affected, as other farmers are, by the market price of milk for large-scale distribution.

Like Ferry, he gets customers from all over—from Provincetown to Rhode Island. He could sell his land and retire, but he has no plans to do so. “It’s a lifestyle,” he says.

Cheese business

Dairy Farming on the South CoastAt the picturesque end of a small peninsula in Marion, out on Delano Road, Great Hill Dairy is making some internationally-acclaimed blue cheese—and barely keeping pace with demand. Great Hill Dairy purchases raw milk from a cooperative of local farms (including Shy Brothers Farm) to make its blue cheese.

Tim Stone, the owner of Great Hill Dairy and great-grandson of a banker who purchased the land in 1908, says that he originally focused on selling milk but struggled to stay in business.

Great Hill Da“I realized you have to do something different. If you don’t diversify and do a value-added product, you aren’t going to make it,” he says. Stone began producing primarily blue cheese after extensive research into cheese in demand. At the time, Great Hill Dairy became the sole maker of blue cheese (called Great Hill Blue) in the Eastern part of the United States. More recently, other creameries have begun to produce blue cheese.

His first customer: Marion General Store, a beloved family- owned grocery still in operation a few miles away. From there, “I gained a couple more customers on the Cape, and gradually built it up, schlepping around in a jeep with the cheese in a cooler,” Stone says.

Since then, his distribution has grown dramatically. Great Hill Blue is sold in Whole Foods markets nationwide, other big and small retailers, and restaurants, including many high-end establishments in Boston. At one point he was a supplier for Legal Sea Foods, but couldn’t keep up with their demand.

“There is a demand for higher quality, more natural products. There has been a lot of growth through those markets that was never envisioned,” he says.

Day in the Life

Great Hill Blue has won its fair share of awards, including a gold prize in the Los Angeles cheese competition and eighth place in the 2018 World Cheese Championships

“We’re the only one in the country making cheese the way we do. We don’t homogenize the blue cheese. We have to age it longer because of this [about four months], something our competitors don’t do. We get a different flavor profile, as it’s not as acidic. It’s creamy, full-flavored and smooth tasting, “ he says.

Dairy Farming on the South CoastGreat Hill Dairy employs a staff of 10 to handle the cheese- making, which begins at 4 am and finishes up mid-to-late afternoon three days per week. The operation produces a half a ton of blue cheese every day, Stone says. Stone himself makes the rounds to local farms on the weekends to purchase the raw milk.

In house, upon coagulation, the curd is cut and stirred until reaching the desired consistency, at which time the whey is drained off. Each cheese form is hand-filled using traditional techniques to ensure proper whey expulsion and curd structure. The workers produce six-pound wheels, which are cut, using wires, into wedges of desired sizes.

Great Hill Blue has carved out a following even among folks who don’t typically like blue cheese, he says. Stone has no plans to expand his operation, despite the fact that he can barely keep up with demand. “The model is working the way it is now,” he says, explaining that he wants to keep his business small.

Nearby Shy Brothers Farm produces Hannahbells: a curd-free thimble-sized hand-made cheese—in the classic French flavors and Cloumage, a creamy and tangy cheese. The unformed, unstructured cheese was discovered a bit by accident, as it started as a curd of Hannahbells.

The cheese is versatile and can be used for cheesecakes. The Back Eddy restaurant in Westport sells “Shy Lime Pie,” a key lime pie made from this delicious pliable cheese. Food & Wine magazine has listed Cloumage as among its 10 top cheeses.

The Shy Brothers Farm also sells mozzarella, which Hanley describes as buttery in flavor, to the local chain Brick Pizza as well as dNB Burgers, among other places.

Written by Laura Pedulli; Photography by Adam Graves

A version of this article appeared in our early summer 2019 print issue. Want to read more stories exploring the people and places of the South Coast? Subscribe to the magazine and we’ll arrive quarterly in your mailbox with stories and photographs reflecting back the beauty and character of the South Coast! Subscribe right here for $19.99 a year.

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